Two U.S. archaeologists who discovered a long-lost Mesopotamian city returned to Iraq last month, anxious to see how the fragile site had fared during the Persian Gulf war and subsequent civil unrest.
Their hopes rose as they sped along a surprisingly undamaged highway south from Baghdad. But a newly dug irrigation ditch barred their way to the desolate stretch of desert where, in 1989, they had discovered faint outlines marking the city walls of legendary, 4,000-year-old Mashakan-shapir.
Mounting an embankment, Paul Zimansky of Boston University gained a view of the site. "To our dismay, as far as the eye could see, that area all had been put under cultivation" by Iraqis desperate for food, he said.
"This is where the real destruction is," said Mr. Zimansky, referring to networks of irrigation canals and large-scale plowing as Iraqis undertake massive agricultural projects without bothering to make surveys of an area's archaeological potential.
Ironically, Mr. Zimansky said it is these peacetime land-use changes prompted by the United Nations embargo that are endangering Iraq's archaeological heritage, not the bombardment that had so worried researchers when it began a year ago.
The country is in the grip of spiraling inflation, and lack of food and a shortage of medical supplies are causing large-scale suffering with no relief in sight, he said.
Mr. Zimansky and his wife, Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York, obtained visas by hooking up with a medical mission to Iraq. They said the Iraqi government put them up in comfortable hotels and let them go wherever they wanted.
Mr. Zimansky said Iraqi officials told him that antiquities from museums in Baghdad that had been dispersed among regional museums when the war began are safe, although he could not verify this.
The renowned sites of ancient cities and religious monuments, such as the famed ziggurat at Ur, escaped damage, Mr. Zimansky said. The traveling party did see a few bomb craters near the ziggurat, a pyramidal temple tower first excavated in the 1930s. They also saw holes in the structure's thick walls that Mr. Zimansky guessed were made by bullets when U.S. planes strafed the area, which is near an Iraqi air base.
But Mr. Zimansky said he was "not upset by that kind of damage" because conflicts throughout history have left their marks on the temple.
Before the war, the researchers had mapped the outlines of Mashakan-shapir, a former trading center that burned in 1720 B.C. during the collapse of the empire of the Babylonian king Hammurabi. The team had used the novel technique of flying a camera aloft beneath a large kite so they could map the site, which is on a eastern branch of the Euphrates River.
"I'm glad we did that," said Mr. Zimansky. Plowing and ground cover have so disturbed the site that it will now be fruitless to try to excavate the city walls.
Overall, agreed another Middle Eastern expert, the gulf war had minor impact on Iraq's principal archaeological sites, many of them representing the culture of ancient Mesopotamia.
But there are reports that some of the antiquities sent from Baghdad to regional museums for safekeeping now are missing, he said.
"That is probably one of the most serious effects" of the war, said David Stronach of the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Stronach has been leading field work at Nineveh, the Iraqi site that was the capital city of the Assyrian empire in the 1st millennium B.C.
The items, including artifacts from ancient sites nationwide, "are at least temporarily lost, and that's very sad," he said, "although perhaps they may be recoverable."